In elite company
Spartan teams rise to prowess in historic string of sports victories
“On the banks of the Red Cedar, there’s a school that’s known to all. Its specialty is winning, and those Spartans play good ball.”
Those opening lines to the MSU fight song never have held so much truth, as Green and White teams have gathered to make their mark this academic year as one of the NCAA’s most successful athletics programs.
The No. 3 football team blanketed East Lansing in rose petals for the first time since 1988. Men’s soccer took its first trip to the Elite Eight since 1968 this past fall. Field hockey generated an improbable run of its own to win the Big Ten Tournament, heading to the Elite Eight as well. Volleyball competed in its second consecutive Sweet 16. Women’s cross country ran itself to a sixth-place finish in the NCAA championships.
And to boot, the MSU faithful has a promising men’s basketball season ahead, with the No. 5 Spartans already defeating then-No. 1 Kentucky and No. 3 Ohio State.
As the football team was honored during halftime of Tuesday’s men’s basketball game, junior center Travis Jackson summed up how most MSU fans feel lately with this year’s triumphs.
“I know I speak for all (my teammates) when I say no one has it better than a Spartan,” Jackson said in front of a sold-out Breslin Center crowd.
Hardwood and gridiron success
Dating back to early December, before football went on to win the Big Ten championship and the 100th Rose Bowl game, men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo shared his dream.
“My dream as a Michigan State person, as a member of this community, my dream was always to see the day when we were successful in both (football and basketball),” Izzo said on Dec. 2, 2013.
“For a guy who has been here this long and loves both sports … it’s living the dream.”
Izzo and his players made the trip to Indianapolis on Dec. 7, 2013 to see their fellow student-athletes accomplish one of their dreams — beat Ohio State and take the program to Pasadena, Calif.
After seeing the football team take home the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl, redshirt freshman forward Kenny Kaminski said the injury-plagued hoops team learned a valuable lesson on what could happen if a team gets together to overcome adversity.
“Who would have thought after the first two games that they were going to win the Rose Bowl?” Kaminski said Thursday. “Their offense was just, in lack of a better word, in shambles. Just watching Connor Cook … pull everyone together and fight through adversity, it’s very similar to us with all our injuries.”
The Spartans undoubtedly will have to fight through the injuries and adversity to fulfill their “Final Four or bust” mentality.
Before dropping a home game to North Carolina, MSU received its first No. 1 ranking in nearly 13 years, giving its fans lofty expectations for the team to meet. Izzone director and marketing senior Matt Martin believes that anything short of a Final Four — a stage Izzo has been to six times — would be a letdown with this year’s talent and experience.
“That’s the culture that’s been brought to us the last 20 years with MSU basketball,” Martin said. “Maybe that seems a little cocky or unfortunate, but that’s just part of Michigan State and being a basketball fan.”
By not playing in front of thousands of fans every game, some of MSU athletic’s success stories have flown under the radar of many MSU fans.
In the middle of November, unanimous All-Big Ten first team member Lauren Wicinski etched her name in volleyball lore by becoming MSU’s all-time kills leader with 2,304.
After an exit in the Spartans’ third-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, Wicinski ended with the NCAA’s 13th-highest career kill total with 2,424. Junior libero and two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Kori Moster also is in the history books with a school record 1,668 digs.
As far as postseason success goes, men’s soccer, field hockey and cross country made noise in their respective sports.
Men’s soccer head coach Damon Rensing said leading the program to its first Elite Eight in 45 years was about more than boosting his team’s image — it was about making MSU’s name stronger.
“It’s a very proud moment, not just within the soccer program, but to contribute to the athletics department’s national effort,” Rensing said.
Field hockey, which came off a shaky 10-10 season in 2012, started its 2013 campaign on the wrong foot with a 3-6 start to the season. But the team turned their shame into fortune by going 4-2 in Big Ten play and winning the Big Ten Tournament. However, that wasn’t the highlight of the season that looked bleak at the start.
The Spartans snapped No. 2 Syracuse’s 45-home game win streak to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2009.
Junior Leah O’Connor spearheaded the women’s cross country team, who placed sixth in the national meet, and men’s sophomore Caleb Rhynard become the first Spartan to receive All-American honors since 1997.
History in the making
MSU’s athletic success has spurred similar standout efforts from students who want to take part in athletic history.
No-preference freshman Ryan Waisanen just wants to get back onto a bus this spring.
After he made the 55-hour-long bus trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., with a group of friends, he saw something he said he thought would never happen.
“We’ve been through some tough times, watching the John L. Smith teams and the Bobby Williams teams, but times are different now,” he said.
Waisanen’s next hopeful bus tour is down to Dallas for the Final Four, a trip he and the same group of friends already have planned.
He certainly isn’t the only one feeling the hype of basketball season, as Martin said Izzone ticket sales have surpassed 3,800, which is “well over double” of what they sold last season.
“The athletics are making kids want to come to the games more, and they feel like they have a bigger impact on the game,” Martin said. “Especially when coaches mention how important they are to the game.”
And the coaches have done just that, with Izzo stating after the wins over Portland and Ohio State that the home crowd played a crucial role in getting the ‘W.’ Another coach who can’t get enough of the fan support is Rensing, who gets to listen to the Red Cedar Rowdies — the men’s soccer student section — banter and help push his team into their next gear.
“We’ve gotten compliments from alumni and other programs around the country,” he said. “They’ve been awesome, they really add to the environment. You combine the Rowdies to the great community of soccer supporters, and it becomes great — you saw that culminate at the Michigan game.
“It’s just a great time to be at MSU.”